THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 351, January 22, 2006
"Down With Tolerance!"
America's Lock on Freedom
Special to TLE
We all want to keep ourselves, our families, and our property safe. That's why we lock our car doors and tell our kids not to talk to strangers. That's why some of us have alarm systems installed in our homes, and one reason many of us choose to have firearms. It's why we wear seatbelts and helmets; it's the bottom line in our reasoning behind getting regular medical checkups.
From smoke alarms to healthy eating, and from avoiding certain parts of town after dark to not running with scissors, safety is our bottom line. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to be safe! In fact, there are some who would consider protecting their families to be a sacred duty, and I'm hard pressed to find an argument against that thought. But no matter how hard we try, sometimes bad things happen.
A car thief smashes through the windows of our locked car and takes it away. Burglars bypass alarm systems. In a misguided attempt toward further safety, our firearms are worthless in the event we need them because we've carefully locked them up and hidden the ammo in a separate place. The batteries in the smoke alarms die, or that healthy food we've selected from a restaurant menu is tainted with e. coli.
There are more than a few people who believe that the government should join our own efforts and play a virtually unlimited role in keeping us safe. In poll after poll, Americans come down more on the side of perceived safety than on that of freedom, making it obvious they value the former more than the latter. Perhaps that's because many of them echo the same opinion voiced by US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) when he said, "None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead."
The PATRIOT Act is a prime example. We were told when the measure was passed just days after 9/11 that its provisions were neeed to protect us from another terrorist attack. We were also told that the powers granted federal authorities in the Act would not be used for anything but terror investigations, and that they would not be abused. As recently as six months ago, the PATRIOT Act and a planned expansion of it enjoyed solid support despite ongoing concerns from civil liberties activists.
Of course, recent findings have indicated that abuses of PATRIOT Act powers may have been committed (the accusations have long been made, but recently released papers provide some evidence to go along with the claims). Limiting the PATRIOT Act to terror investigations was apparently never seriously considered at all since early investigations under the new powers included embezzlement and other criminal activities entirely unrelated to terrorism.
But from the beginning, there have been those who have defended the PATRIOT Act and its intrusions on two fronts: The firstand most importantis that we've had no terror attacks since its inception, so it must be working. The second is the ubiquitous (and false) premise that "if you have nothing to hide," you face no threat from the law.
These arguments are specious at best. After all, if you look even casually at the ongoing illegal immigration problem, you'll find that terrorists are perfectly able to get into the country if they feel like it, PATRIOT Act or not. And the domestic surveillance ongoing by the NSA may or may not catch someone in a damning conversation, but is it really catching terrorists? That's hard to say since terrorists frequently talk in pre-arranged codes whereas you and I are far more likely to say or write keywords that will draw unwanted (and unwarranted in both senses) government attention.
Airports search random travelers with the claim that it will prevent more terror attacks similar to those that occurred on 9/11. But to the best of my knowledge, the men who committed those attrocities were all young Middle Eastern men. There wasn't a single female middle-aged journalist, young white salesman and father, nor elderly couple on vacation who did anything wrong. Yet it's illegal to racially profile air travelers, which in and of itself shows the program is less about our safety than it is about invasiveness.
Despite that, most Americans stand patiently in line to be searchedor notthinking it's for their own security, and forgetting all together the rights to which they're entitled. They've also conveniently ignored the fact that, despite support from both citizens and Congress, many pilots are yet to carry firearms. This is particularly inexcusable when we recall that the 9/11 terrorists were armed with simple boxcutters! A gun would have easily put a stop to their nefarious plans, but even now there are those who seem to have more fear of a firearm in the hands of an emminently responsible man (or woman) who knows how to use it than they are of being x-rayed and manhandled at terminal gates.
NFL stadiums are, at the behest of the NFL, searching everyone who enters the gates. While that's certainly fairer than the random searches engaged in by airports and the New York City subway system, is it reasonable? A very few have protested; a pair of cases remain in court. But the vast majority meekly wait to have their bodies patted down by total strangers. Why do they tolerate such an invasion of privacy and a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights? Because they're told it will keep them safe from somebody who might want to bomb or otherwise target the stadium. (They apparently aren't thinking that an explosive-laden homicide bomber would only kill a few whereas a better funded and far more fearful terrorist would have concealed a tiny vial of some nasty biological material that would be both ideal for a large crowd and almost certainly undetectable in a casual patdown.)
Drunk driving checkpoints stop and question all drivers. They're supposed to offer positive publicity and remind those who drink to arrange for designated drivers. But police typically use the checkpoints as a reason to poke their heads into every vehicle and to find even the smallest of infractions that might otherwise have gone entirely unnoticed. They also ask many motorists at these stops if they can take a look inside the vehiclewithout the cause required by lawand most are either too fearful or too mistakenly cooperative to question the act. Besides, if it gets drunk drivers off the road, we'll all be safer, won't we?
I don't like drunk drivers on the road any more than you probably do. But stopping every car and effectively searching it is a violation of rights that's not excused by the hope of catching a drunk driver or two (especially since checkpoints are publicized in advance and thus can be avoided by those it's intended to stop). MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) points out that support for sobriety checkpoints is overwhelming and that only those who drink and drive are against the measures. As far as I can tell, that only goes to prove yet again that people are far more concerned with some appearance of improved safety than they are for the dangers to civil liberties. (The fact that such checkpoints have now expanded into "impaired" driving checkpoints and even, in one case in Illinois, a "stop everybody and see if they saw anything" checkpoint, only makes the checkpoints more dangerous whether they make anybody minimally safer or not.)
Even without the 9/11 terror attacks, I suspect that the use of security cameras would be growing at an exponential pace. Many cameras are now also equipped with microphones ostensibly so that gunshots can be recorded and triangulated, but which I wouldn't be surprised can also hear conversation nearby. Most people seem to support the surveillance of public places as preventing crime and thus representing another facet in the government's ongoing efforts to keep its citizens safer."If you're not doing anything wrong," these people say, "the cameras shouldn't bother you." But yet again, there's some misunderstanding as to just how much goodor harmthe cameras could do.
The British government likes cameras a lot. They're everywhere. But precisely how much good did all of those cameras do on 7/7 when the London undergound was the object of a terrorist attack? While the numerous cameras that did catch something on tape (there were over 20, as I recall) may have helped reconstruct some of the timeline, they did nothing at all to prevent the crime or to save any lives. So how were those commuters made safer? And let's not even get started on those who monitor those cameras and who abuse their powers! Now news is that the Brits will engage in satellite surveillance of vehicles so as to enforce speed limits, thus tracking every driver in the country (on a voluntary basis at first, but do you really think that will last?).
The people who think the government should keep us all safereally, and completely safe from crime, terrorists, substandard products, and ourselvesare also the people who think the government should take care of us in many other regards as well. Welfare programs, housing assistance, medical care, and more are either already in place or being demanded by many. And here's the thing: such government-provided care is already available to some.
Cameras are everywhere, and law enforcement is mere seconds away. No one is permitted to have firearms or other "dangerous" ordnance. Medical care is provided without discrimination and without charge. Hot food is served, clothing is handed out, and the chances of someone breaking in are virtually non-existent. Education, up to and including college, is free. Utopia, right? Well, either that, or a penetentiary where safety is paramount in the minds of virtually everybody, and freedom is nowhere to be found.
The Bill of Rights has been relegated to a distant second when it comes to matters of safety (or at least those things we're told are about matters of safety). That's quite a change from the days when real men who were real patriots said things like, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Now it's, "Give away liberty, and keep me safe!" But the price for total safetyor at least as total as is possible in an imperfect worldamounts to imprisonment, something we're apparently more and more willing to accept. The absence of bars is meaningless when it's really the absence of freedom that tells.
We take freedom from criminals as punishment (and, ironically for the purposes of this essay, to keep society safe from their predations). And yet taking freedom away from ourselves is somehow viewed as good, or at least necessary. That more people don't instantly see everything that's wrong with that picture is yet one more sign that, for all intents and purposes, reads, "Go directly to jail..."